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Wednesday, January 18, 2006

Using an on-line medium for discussion

We've all seen it I'm sure, the email pings in, you open it and BLAMMM,

the hearts pounding faster than a reciprocating steam engine and the fingers are tapping a thoughtless reply in moments.

What happens?

We've all seen the result of what happens - it runs something like.....

We send a nice, polite, helpful note to someone who can benefit from what we know or can do and within minutes a primed and fused thermonuclear device falls into our inbox - and it's been copied to everyone.


As I write this, I am using the language I am exposed to, and have grown up with, turning it into meaning to express the views that I hold based on years of living on this wonderful planet. My views, my thoughts, my knowledge, my experience, no one has that, nor can have it. When you read what I say, it is my words, but it is your knowledge, your experience, your frame of reference. I have no means of controlling what you interpret from what I say at an internal level.

So much of what we all know is implicit knowledge, we just know it, we've forgotten how we learned if, and we certainly can't teach it easily. We can describe how to ride a bicycle, but we cannot tell people how to ride it without them experiencing the inevitable failures first. For you to learn what is implicit to me you have no choice but to infer it from what I do and what I say. We all know that inference gets it wrong some of the time.

When you move to a purely text based exchange like email and blogs and other on-line media there is no support to our 'inference engine' in the form of visual clues, tone of voice, body language etc. About 80% of the clues and pointers we use are missing. It is important that we make the effort (and it is an effort) to think about how we can put them back in when we write.

Reading the articles and blogs and threads here it is clear that the problem is rife, but there is a good basis of 'assumed good intention'. You can tell that from all the comments that you see about the warmth and friendliness on-line, it's something that new users of networking and bloggin sites like Ecademy often comment on.

I work with businesses undergoing change. Their people are already disturbed from their comfort zones by change and they tend to have a shorter fuse as a result. Change puts pressure on people, they usually have less time and less patience so I've developed some techniques that I teach to help them. Because working on-line is a change we are all learning about (especially as it changes the way we meet and connect with people) I thought that putting this on-line for you might let you benefit from these thoughts too, so here they are:

1. Most people don't get up intending to upset you, if their note has upset you then the first thing is to assume that they didn't intend that outcome.

Golden rule number one - Ask yourself "What would have to be true for this note to be a reasonable one" - This is not an emotional question, it's about trying to read what the sender perceives to be true given their interpretation of the facts - because my experience is that they think they are polite, kind and caring.

2. Check the facts behind what they say, and the assumptions that go with them.

Golden rule number 2
- Ask yourself "what could I be assuming here that would make me interpret this the way that I am"

3. Are there facts that you know that they don't (or vice versa) that put your perspectives in a different place.

Golden rule number 3 - Check the facts - reply using phrases like "Am I right to understand…." And "Did you know that ….." as a preamble to responding substantively (see the golden rule of golden rules below)

4. Is there anyone else who you could check your reaction with in confidence, perhaps a business coach, a colleague (but be careful not to colour their judgement of the person) or a family member.

Golden Rule number 4 - Validate the emotions - use shortcuts in non formal writing to help convey the real emotion - emoticons are great, especially if the writing is "robust" ;-)

5. In a diverse cultural place like ecademy there is another people may not even use the sme language or may be writing in a foreign tongue.

Golden rule number 5 - Does this persons language and culture match up to your own, is the base the same. Remember America and Britain are countries separated by a common language, don't even assume the words mean the same as we understand them in the UK - re-apply golden rule number 3 and check the understanding, but use different words to validate things.

The first golden rule of golden rules - Always respond constructively. Write with a goal to improve your readers life and to give them a lift - whatever you feel like doing. Well crafted constructive criticism can highlight a problem someone never knew they were creating. Done well you can deal with your issue and change someone's life for the better for ever.

The second golden rule of golden rules - Take a walk. Only reply when you are in the frame of mind that you want the recipient to be in. All our writing is coloured by our emotions, if you are angry it will come across. How do you react to an (unreasonably) angry person?To everyone, I hope this helps you to deal with the ever flowing emotions that make us human and improves the way that you interact in this electronic village. Of course, I welcome debate I want to improve the advice and make it better so that more people get more right first time. I welcome and embrace your help.

William Buist
Helping business change by getting things done right… .., in half the time


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